A Free Nation Deep in Debt: The Financial Roots of Democracy

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Overview

For the greater part of recorded history the most successful and powerful states were autocracies; yet now the world is increasingly dominated by democracies. In A Free Nation Deep in Debt, James Macdonald provides a novel answer for how and why this political transformation occurred. The pressures of war finance led ancient states to store up treasure; and treasure accumulation invariably favored autocratic states. But when the art of public borrowing was developed by the city-states of medieval Italy as a democratic alternative to the treasure chest, the balance of power tipped. From that point on, the pressures of war favored states with the greatest public creditworthiness; and the most creditworthy states were invariably those in which the people who provided the money also controlled the government. Democracy had found a secret weapon and the era of the citizen creditor was born. Macdonald unfolds this tale in a sweeping history that starts in biblical times, passes via medieval Italy to the wars and revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and ends with the great bond drives that financed the two world wars.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Review of Books
Remarkable. . . . [This] book could scarcely be more comprehensive. . . . Since Macdonald was for many years a British investment banker, he has a hands-on feel for his subject. But he has not allowed his technical expertise to get in the way of his lucid prose: his argument is readily accessible to a lay reader. And that argument is convincing.
— Gordon S. Wood
Foreign Affairs
A fine history of public finance from ancient Greece and Persia to the present.
— Richard N. Cooper
Washington Post
Written clearly and accessibly. . . . A challenging yet fascinating work [that] could hardly be more timely.
— Michelle Wucker
Democracy
This book begins with Moses, ends with World War II, and covers just about every important development in public finance in between. Yet, for all his range, MacDonald offers a simple, stunning thesis: Democracy arises from public debt.
— James Galbraith
The Cash Nexus
Macdonald has something exciting to teach all serious students of history-that the evolution of democratic institutions is not just about taxation and representation but also about investment.
New York Review of Books - Gordon S. Wood
Remarkable. . . . [This] book could scarcely be more comprehensive. . . . Since Macdonald was for many years a British investment banker, he has a hands-on feel for his subject. But he has not allowed his technical expertise to get in the way of his lucid prose: his argument is readily accessible to a lay reader. And that argument is convincing.
Foreign Affairs - Richard N. Cooper
A fine history of public finance from ancient Greece and Persia to the present.
Washington Post - Michelle Wucker
Written clearly and accessibly. . . . A challenging yet fascinating work [that] could hardly be more timely.
Democracy - James Galbraith
This book begins with Moses, ends with World War II, and covers just about every important development in public finance in between. Yet, for all his range, MacDonald offers a simple, stunning thesis: Democracy arises from public debt.
author of "The Cash Nexus ll Ferguson

Macdonald has something exciting to teach all serious students of history-that the evolution of democratic institutions is not just about taxation and representation but also about investment.
From the Publisher

"Remarkable. . . . [This] book could scarcely be more comprehensive. . . . Since Macdonald was for many years a British investment banker, he has a hands-on feel for his subject. But he has not allowed his technical expertise to get in the way of his lucid prose: his argument is readily accessible to a lay reader. And that argument is convincing."--Gordon S. Wood, New York Review of Books

"A fine history of public finance from ancient Greece and Persia to the present."--Richard N. Cooper, Foreign Affairs

"Written clearly and accessibly. . . . A challenging yet fascinating work [that] could hardly be more timely."--Michelle Wucker, Washington Post

"Macdonald has something exciting to teach all serious students of history-that the evolution of democratic institutions is not just about taxation and representation but also about investment."--Niall Ferguson, author of The Cash Nexus

"This book begins with Moses, ends with World War II, and covers just about every important development in public finance in between. Yet, for all his range, MacDonald offers a simple, stunning thesis: Democracy arises from public debt."--James Galbraith, Democracy

New York Review of Books
Remarkable. . . . [This] book could scarcely be more comprehensive. . . . Since Macdonald was for many years a British investment banker, he has a hands-on feel for his subject. But he has not allowed his technical expertise to get in the way of his lucid prose: his argument is readily accessible to a lay reader. And that argument is convincing.
— Gordon S. Wood
Democracy
This book begins with Moses, ends with World War II, and covers just about every important development in public finance in between. Yet, for all his range, MacDonald offers a simple, stunning thesis: Democracy arises from public debt.
— James Galbraith
Publishers Weekly
Public borrowing from citizens in times of war has gone hand in hand with modern democracy, Macdonald argues in this dense, sweeping economic history. A former investment banker now living in London, Macdonald traces the history of public financing of "national emergencies" (read: wars), from the biblical era through the present day. Until modern times, he shows, nations relied on stored treasure and surpluses to finance wars, often with detrimental results. Indeed, Macdonald argues that an inability to raise taxes for wars was one of the causes of Rome's downfall. Placing the importance of credit back at the center of historical causality is one of the book's strengths. The system of public credit swept onto the world stage in 18th-century Britain, France and the United States, and was intricately linked, notes the author, with revolutions in these latter two countries. During the 20th century, the system-and the notion of a "citizen-creditor"-reached its strongest point during WWI and likely had its swan song during WWII, because of postwar inflation, the succeeding decline in trust in government in the West and the increasingly global understanding of citizenship. There is much to learn here, but despite Macdonald's best attempts at accessibility, readers without a background in economics will struggle through. (Jan.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Foreign Affairs
The fate of states often hinges on their financial capacity, but that fact does not engage historians (or their readers) as much as the personalities of leaders and the outcomes of battles. MacDonald attempts to correct this deficiency by offering a fine history of public finance from ancient Greece and Persia to the present. His thesis: the growth and relative success of democratic government is intimately related to its superior ability to raise public funds, especially public debt at modest interest rates. "Democracy" here takes its traditional meaning of decisions by citizens, even when citizens are a minority of the population. The key feature is that creditors are collectively in political control of public finance, assuring their interests are not seriously abused. Leading historical examples are the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Public coffers come under stress, especially in time of war, and democracies have demonstrated a superior ability to finance war even against economically larger opponents — for example, the Dutch against the Spanish in the sixteenth century, or the British against the French in the eighteenth century. Germany floated extensive public debt in World War I — nearly as much as the United Kingdom did — but it relied markedly less on taxation. In the modern era, however, the crucial creditor-debtor link is broken by extensive international lending. And since the real value of public debt fell greatly as a result of universal inflation following World War II, the author recognizes that the lessons he has drawn from the past need not apply to the future.
Library Journal
The secret to the survival of early democracies such as Renaissance Italy's city-states and later the Netherlands and England was the willingness of their citizens to loan their governments funds in remarkable amounts during times of crisis. This, according to Macdonald, a former investment banker, is a fundamental difference between democracies and autocracies. In this history of public finance from the ancient Greek city-states through World War II, Macdonald traces the concept of government borrowing to the reluctance of free citizens to allow themselves to be taxed; loaning money was more palatable even if repayment was delayed, discounted, or made in inflated currency. Macdonald argues that an additional benefit of citizen loans was that large segments of each nation's populace became stakeholders in the preservation of their states. He concludes that unfortunately the role of the citizen lender has diminished since the 1940s. Though the subject matter appears narrow, the book is exceedingly well written and should be a necessary purchase for any library with more than cursory holdings in public finance. Highly recommended.-Lawrence R. Maxted, Gannon Univ., Erie, PA Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Democracies are habitually broke, and for good reasons revealed in this provocative study by a former investment banker. "Liberty and credit," wrote a 19th-century French finance minister, "are always united." His English counterpart would surely have agreed, suggests Macdonald: in ridding Europe of Napoleon and assuring liberty of a certain kind, the British government amassed a debt of more than £800,000,000, a sum that vastly outstripped the gross national product. No matter, writes Macdonald, for politicians of the recent past understood that "there was a connection between political freedom and public debt." They also understood, as contemporary politicians seem loath to do, that the growth of democracy requires vast outlays of money, particularly in the matter of training an educated workforce. Following the work of Niall Ferguson and other contemporary economic historians, first-time author Macdonald pursues any number of promising lines of inquiry, suggesting here that democratic institutions have been furthered through time by the requirements of financing wars, there that universal suffrage was hastened along by the development of public savings banks, and elsewhere that autocracies attaining a certain level of gross domestic product find it hard to prevent democracy from taking hold, while those who insist on holding absolute power are unable to advance economically. Drawing on a broad range of historical examples over thousands of years, he shows the political implications of the quest for prosperity and examines options that include keeping the coffers of the state perpetually empty. Never mind those who decry deficit spending; as Macdonald notes, "peacetime deficits, howevermuch finger-wagging they may incite, are relatively small." Such lessons are likely to give advocates of the Thomas Friedman globalization-is-good school much fuel for their side of the debate, but Macdonald is careful not to oversimplify—and certainly not to cheerlead for "a new global elite who view national governments as largely irrelevant to their needs." Altogether fascinating, and a sound investment for readers seeking high return in the form of useful ideas.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691126326
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 5/2/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 576
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

James Macdonald was an investment banker for many years. He lives in Oxford, England.

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Read an Excerpt

A Free Nation Deep in Debt

The Financial Roots of Democracy
By James Macdonald

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2006 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-691-12632-1


Introduction

THE FINANCIAL ROOTS OF DEMOCRACY

No Man whatever having lent his Money to the Government on the Credit of a Parliamentary Fund has been Defrauded of his Property ... The Goodness of the Publick Credit in England, is the reason why we shall never be out of Debt.... Let us be, say I, a free Nation deep in Debt, rather than a Nation of Slaves owing Nothing.

The author of these words, an anonymous English pamphleteer writing in 1719, was expressing an idea that was just starting to take hold-that there was a connection between political freedom and public debt. The idea gained ground in the following decades, and one hundred years later it had become almost a commonplace. In 1815, a French Minister of Finance could state simply that "liberty and credit are always united." By that time, France had suffered a century of military defeats, political revolutions, and counterrevolutions as it attempted to come to grips with this political insight.

Nowadays the idea of a link between public debt and democracy comes as an initial surprise to almost everyone to whom I have expressed it. The connection has been lost for reasons that will become apparent by the end of the book. However,the thread has been taken up by some recent historians seeking to explain the very questions that challenged eighteenth-century thinkers: Was the necessity of borrowing vast sums of money to finance the ever-increasing cost of war altering the political landscape? Was it perhaps England's parliamentary government that explained the country's astonishing ability to outborrow and outspend France in spite of having a population less than half the size? One high-ranking French official, writing in 1774, worried that this was indeed the case: "If people believe [Louis XVI] to be a despot it will be impossible to open loans, or, if that route is taken, they will be so costly that England will always finish by having the last écu in any war."

That the rise of the bond market had irrevocably changed the political arithmetic was dramatically demonstrated in August 1788, when the Bourbon government of France was forced to declare bankruptcy, and then found itself obliged to summon the Estates General as the only way to escape from its financial predicament. The bankruptcy of August 1788 ushered in the Revolution of 1789. The history of public finance therefore provides a crucial perspective on one of the most important questions of our times-the rise of democracy.

In recent decades this rise has started to appear almost unstoppable. However, it was not always so. Indeed, for most of recorded history it would have appeared absurd to predict the long-term success of democratic government at all. The history of the world showed that the most sophisticated and advanced societies had invariably been headed by emperors, not elected officials. Apart from a few brief historical moments, such as Athens in the fourth and fifth centuries B.C., civilization and autocratic rule appeared to go hand in hand. Furthermore, it seemed that democratic government could only be practiced in small, intimate societies, such as city-states, whose existence was always threatened by larger and more powerful empires. Even if a city-state managed, like the Roman Republic, to circumvent the risk of being conquered by conquering others, this would lead to insurmountable political tensions that could only be resolved by one-man rule. Only a lunatic or a clairvoyant would have forecast that the day would come when the world's most advanced and most powerful states would be democracies.

The inevitable question is, Why is democracy taking on the appearance of an unstoppable force now, when it appeared doomed to the margins of the civilized world for so long? The standard explanation centers on the Industrial Revolution and the dramatic increase in economic development that has occurred in its wake. High levels of technology require an educated workforce, and a high-output economy requires wealthy consumers. These parallel forces push inexorably toward mass participation in politics; and it seems that above a certain level of income per capita it is hard to prevent democracy from taking root even in autocratic societies. Conversely, societies that insist on retaining rigid state control are unable to advance economically beyond a certain point.

I do not seek to challenge or dismiss this line of reasoning, which is undoubtedly valid as far as it goes. However, such arguments can only address the modern world. The requirements of an advanced economy cannot explain the English, American, or French Revolutions-the three seminal events of the rise of modern democracy. After all, these countries were still at "Third World" levels of development.

This is where the history of war finance enters the picture. Once wars could only be financed by borrowing, the outlook for autocracy dimmed. But even the rise of the bond market in eighteenth-century Europe leaves two crucial questions unanswered. First, where did public borrowing and bond markets come from? Are they a purely fortuitous development, a deus ex machina in the political life of the planet? Is it merely a coincidence that they first emerged in Europe, the same continent that gave birth to the democratic revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries?

Second, what about earlier examples of democratic government, such as the republics of the ancient world? Their existence certainly cannot be ascribed to high levels of income per capita, nor can it be attributed to the workings of sophisticated financial markets. Are they, therefore, entirely unconnected to modern democratic states? This was not the view of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century political philosophers. They looked back to ancient liberties that had been enjoyed not only by the city-states of classical Greece, but by primitive peoples everywhere before the rise of the state. Political freedom, in their view, was a primeval birthright that had been usurped by kings and emperors (an argument most memorably expressed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau: "Man was born free, but is everywhere in chains"). Countries where liberty reigned, such as England and Holland, had merely fought back against royal usurpations more successfully; and it was up to other nations to do the same if they wished to recover their freedom.

These ideas have fallen out of favor. Although anthropologists may agree that tribal life is indeed characterized by an absence of autocratic state power, few, if any, political theorists or historians are willing to see a direct chain of descent from such primitive freedom to modern democratic constitutions. Moreover, if the rise of modern democracy is attributable to economic development, then it makes little sense to delve into the ancient world.

This book, however, takes a different path. It looks back centuries, even millennia, before the events of the eighteenth century and comes up with some surprising conclusions.

First, the origins of public debt. Nowadays the bond market is seen as an impersonal, almost superhuman force that responds only to the laws of economics and that passes harsh judgment on the shortcomings of human politics-favoring those forms of government that are most likely to ensure that debts are paid promptly, without any special preference for one system or another. However, a study of history reveals a different story. Public borrowing is not politically neutral, but has a particularly intimate relationship with democracy. It is no coincidence that public borrowing and parliamentary government both originated in Europe. For the bond market was not a deus ex machina; it was the product of the quest for political freedom.

The second conclusion is equally surprising. The financial origins of democracy are not to be found in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They can be traced to the earliest recesses of human history.

In order to understand this conclusion, it is necessary to look at the origins of the state. When one does so, it soon becomes clear why the laws of economic efficiency seemed to suggest that the future lay with autocracy, not democracy. It was autocracies who could best concentrate power and wealth in the hands of the state and then use that concentration both for military expansion and for economic development.

There was, however, a potential chink in the economic armor of the great empires. Few states have found it easy to deal with emergencies (especially warfare) merely by raising taxes, because of the economic disruption and political unrest that this can cause. Until quite recently, the solution to this problem was to store up treasure; and states with the greatest ability to accumulate were assumed to have an inherent advantage in the struggle for survival. But the "treasury" solution contained an in-built economic inefficiency. Societies mined precious metals to act as currency at enormous economic cost. They then proceeded to hoard these same metals for a rainy day in a process that was tantamount to mining in reverse. (The Persian Empire, possibly the greatest hoarder of the ancient world, actually melted down its gold again before burial underground, making the analogy quite literal.) It is not difficult to see the superiority of a system that allowed this hard-earned wealth to circulate in the general economy, to be tapped only insofar as necessary. Hence the economic utility of public debt.

To state that public borrowing is a superior method of dealing with emergencies is not sufficient to explain its existence. With the benefit of hindsight, public borrowing may have the appearance of inevitability; but from a historical perspective, it was not an obvious development. Where did the idea come from? The great states of the ancient world were conspicuous for their ability to store up surpluses (take the story of Joseph in Egypt, for example), but public borrowing was an entirely alien concept. Why would a pharaoh, a god in human form with the power to compel his subjects to build veritable mountains of stone to house his mortal remains, think of borrowing? Whatever he needed was his by right.

What was required was an alternative form of government in which public borrowing was an organic growth. Only then was it conceivable that public debt might flower into a force sufficiently powerful to change the world. The thesis of this book is that the alternative form of government was democracy. Not the democracy that has become familiar since the political revolutions of the eighteenth century, but precisely those earlier forms of democracy whose existence cannot be explained by high levels of income per capita.

What was the crucial element that made public borrowing natural in democracies, but unnatural in autocracies? The standard explanation for the superior creditworthiness of constitutional governments is that they are limited by law and therefore make more trustworthy counterparts for the private individuals who lend them money. However, this explanation does not answer the question of whether public borrowing is in some way indigenous to democracy. The true answer lies in the identity of borrowers and lenders. Divine, or semidivine, autocrats are unlikely to perceive lenders as their equals. In democracies, the opposite is true. As long as the state borrows from its citizens, there is no divergence of interest between borrower and lenders, for the two are one and the same. This is a far more powerful reason for the inherent creditworthiness of democracies than mere constitutional constraint. But it is important to note that the argument holds good only for domestic borrowing-when the lenders are citizens. The argument does not apply to external borrowing. A democracy may have a natural inclination to respect the rules of credit when dealing with foreign creditors, because democracies are, on the whole, readier than autocracies to adapt to the purely economic logic of credit markets. But it was not the ability to borrow abroad that counted in the struggle between rival forms of government. It was above all the symbiosis of borrowers and lenders inherent in domestic borrowing that turned public debt into a powerful weapon capable of upsetting the long-term advantage of autocratic government.

While, on one level, then, this book deals with the hard facts of money and credit markets, its underlying motif is the relationship of the state with its citizens. Its hero is the citizen creditor-a subspecies of Homo sapiens not hitherto recognized or given his due. Indeed the role of the citizen creditor in history did not end in 1789. In many ways, his greatest days were in the twentieth century, not the eighteenth.

But there remains a further mystery. Public borrowing may be a form of public finance naturally suited to democratic government; but where did the idea first come from? The answer is that it always existed in nascent form within the simple customs of primitive tribes. These customs may seem very distant from the complex paraphernalia of modern government, but they contain within them the financial roots of political freedom. This book uncovers a chain of descent that links tribal financial practices to modern public debts; and this leads to an intriguing reflection. The political philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries sought the roots of democracy in the political customs of their tribal ancestors. Their views have often been dismissed as unhistorical wishful thinking. But it now seems that the ideas of the old philosophers may have contained an element of truth. Political liberty may have descended from tribal customs-but for hitherto unsuspected reasons.

The first chapter of the book traces the story of public finance and political freedom from the end of the Bronze Age to the end of the Dark Ages. The outer boundaries of this field of vision are not chosen by chance. For the possibility of a challenge of any sort to the apparently unstoppable tide of autocracy lay in a cyclical pattern of world history in which great civilizations were slowly built up, and then disrupted by waves of "barbarian" invasion. These invasions allowed the periodic reintroduction of tribal customs into the historical mix before the tide resumed its advance. The story starts with the first of these great waves, which marked the end of the Bronze Age, and which introduced into the historical landscape many of the peoples who later dominated the era of classical antiquity. It ends with the second of these waves, which heralded the end of that era, and which, crucially, had effects that were more profound and lasting in Western Europe than elsewhere.

The book then moves to medieval Europe. Although the roots of democratic public finance can be traced to the ancient world, the examples of public borrowing to be found there amounted to no more than tantalizing experiments that came to an end with the rise of the Roman Empire. It was the role of the city-states of medieval Italy to resurrect the idea and transform it into a viable financial strategy. The system that they created, although in one way fatally flawed, set off a chain of events with results that no one could have predicted.

The following several chapters of the book describe the attempts of the states of Europe to come to terms with the implications of the Italian invention. On one level, the question they faced appeared to be purely technical: How could the exhilarating freedom of borrowing be reconciled with the dull constraints of solvency? But there was a second question of equal importance, without which there could be no defininitive answer to the first: Were the benefits of public borrowing available to states that did not enjoy the symbiosis between borrowers and lenders of the Italian cities? The answer to this question was finally delivered in August 1788 when the Bourbon monarchy threw in the towel, admitting bankruptcy and agreeing to recall the Estates General, the parliamentary institution that it thought it had consigned to the history books nearly two hundred years earlier.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from A Free Nation Deep in Debt by James Macdonald Copyright © 2006 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: THE FINANCIAL ROOTS OF DEMOCRACY 3

CHAPTER 1. TRIBES AND EMPIRES 10
Rags to Riches 10
Barbarians at the Gate 18
The Free Men Fight Back 24
Greeks and Their "Gifts" 31
Civic Debt 36
Kings and Tyrants 42
The Carthaginian Wars 45
Imperium Romanum 51
Breakdown 56

CHAPTER 2. CITIZEN CREDITORS 67
The Return of the City-State 67
La Serenissima 72
La Superba 77
The Monte Comune 81
The Twilight of Repayable Taxes 84
San Giorgio 94
Selfish Citizens 100

CHAPTER 3. SOVEREIGN DEBT 105
Kings and Merchants 105
The Treasure of the Indies 115
Antwerp and Lyons 122
Serial Bankruptcy 128
Folie des Offices 138

CHAPTER 4. RESISTANCE TO THE HEGEMON 148
The League of Cities 148
Regicide 157
Glorious Revolution 166

CHAPTER 5. THE CHIMERA 179
Le Roi Soleil 179
Post-bellum Depression 185
The Chimera 190
The Bubble 205

CHAPTER 6. THE DILEMMA 220
Mopping Up 221
The Ruling Class 227
The Dilemma 239
The Limits of Absolutism 255
Aristocratic Revolution 266

CHAPTER 7. REVOLUTION 272
A New World 277
The First and Second American Revolutions 289
Enemies of the People 307
The Elephant and the Whale 334

CHAPTER 8. BOURGEOIS CENTURY 347
Pax Britannica 348
The Heyday of Bourgeois Finance 355
Ties of Identity 366
A Nation of Rentiers 377
Greenbacks and 5-20s 384

CHAPTER 9. NATIONS AT ARMS 400
Total War (Part I) 400
The Settlement of Accounts (Part I) 413
Total War (Part II) 435
Totalitarian War 445
The Settlement of Accounts (Part II) 456

Epilogue: THE END OF THE AFFAIR 465
A Note on Currencies 477

Glossary 483
Notes 487
Bibliography 523
Acknowledgments 545
Index 547

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